"I love Betty," Henry Thompson said. He said it every morning as soon as he woke up. He said it to his pillow and the yellow wall beside his bed. He said it to the nurse who gently pulled the false teeth from his mouth and to the orderly who brought his breakfast, to the television screen that loomed over his bed on a metal arm, to the windows of the recreation room where he was wheeled, singing love along the way. At every meal, when the other patients murmured grace or stubbornly stayed silent and refused to give thanksgiving, he said, over meats and vegetables, "I love Betty."
When Henry started saying "I love Betty," his children were confused. His wife had been dead for three years. A few days after Henry began his declarations, his children, Douglass and Claire, met with Henry's doctor in her office at the nursing home.
The woman took out a small plastic model of the brain and pulled it apart into four different sections. She pointed at each quadrant, stickered in red and blue veins. She explained that Henry didn't know what he was saying, that this was a further stage of his dementia, that this nursing home might not have the care he would need. "You have some decisions to make," she said.
While the doctor spoke, Claire looked at the plastic model. She knew she should be paying closer attention, but she couldn't. The doctor said it was a symptom, that the words her father repeated were arbitrary. But Claire didn't believe that. Her father had gotten so lost in the sweet thrills of nostalgia that he didn't ever want to return to mundane communication again. And why should he? she thought, and smiled.
Douglass nudged her arm. "Are you even listening?"
"Of course," Claire said.
One in the morning, a few nights later, Douglass lay in bed watching television, his wife, Nia, asleep beside him. The phone on the night table beside Douglass vibrated. He answered on the first buzz.
"I've been thinking," Claire said. He knew it was his sister without looking at the screen. She was the only person who called that late.
"I'm listening," Douglass said.
Claire took a deep breath. "I was really sad about Pop. But maybe there's something to celebrate here."
"Life's not always a celebration, Claire," Douglass said.
"No, not like celebrating to deny anything. I mean celebrating to accept who he is now. Like, I think it's remarkable. Because I think it's really special, what's happening here ..."
"What's happening here, Claire?"
"You know that storytelling workshop I've been taking?" she said conspiratorially.
Douglass sighed. Storytelling was the newest of Claire's manias — after the pottery class and the Thai cooking class and the Tuvan throat singing chorus and the time she believed she could blow glass.
"Don't sigh at me. Keith, the boy who runs my storytelling workshop, he's always saying, 'Everyone's got a story.' He says telling stories taps into our deepest empathy."
"Really," Douglass said. Claire had a knack for making gurus out of her teachers, for taking their rudely obvious statements as words of wisdom.
Claire clucked her tongue. "Listen, Dougy, everyone's got a story and this one is going to be ours. I'll edit it all together and I'll keep a copy and you'll get a copy and I'll send one out and maybe it will get on the radio."
"I don't know, Claire. It's ghoulish." Beside him, Nia turned onto her stomach.
"It's remarkable," Claire said.
"Losing your mind is remarkable?"
"No, love is. The triumph of love is remarkable." Douglass's ears burned in embarrassment for the both of them — Claire for saying it, himself for having to listen to it.